An Attack Against Message Authentication in the ERTMS Train to Trackside Communication Protocols

Tom Chothia, Mihai Ordean, Joeri de Ruiter and Richard J. Thomas
Submitted to ACM Asia Conference on Computer and Communications Security (ASIACCS) 2017

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This paper presents the results of a cryptographic analysis of the protocols used by the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). A stack of three protocols secures the communication between trains and trackside equipment; encrypted radio communication is provided by the GSM-R protocol, on top of this the EuroRadio protocol provides authentication for a train control application-level protocol. We present an attack which exploits weaknesses in all three protocols: GSM-R has the same well known weaknesses as the GSM protocol, and we present a new collision attack against the EuroRadio protocol. Combined with design weaknesses in the application-level protocol, these vulnerabilities allow an attacker, who observes a MAC collision, to forge train control messages. We demonstrate this attack with a proof of concept using train control messages we have generated ourselves. Currently, ERTMS is only used to send small amounts of data for short sessions, therefore this attack does not present an immediate danger. However, if EuroRadio was to be used to transfer larger amounts of data trains would become vulnerable to this attack. Additionally, we calculate that, under reasonable assumptions, an attacker who could monitor all backend control centres in a country the size of the UK for 45 days would have a 1% chance of being able to take control of a train.


This paper was presented on Thursday, 6th April 2017 at New York University Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


The paper is available here: asiaccs_paper.pdf